Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Outgoing and The Return II

In my last post, I imagine I irritated more than a few of you by suggesting that the death of our spouse is a gift. If you're within the first year or two, you probably use far different words, like tragedy, catastrophe, disaster, or robbery! Yet, I am in no way intending to cause indignation. Keep in mind that I too am a widower, and that I too have experienced the pain, anguish, anxiety, and suffering that goes with bereavement. But I have come through grief to the other side, and my days are now filled with peace and happiness. And excitement! ;-)

My last post gave Eckhart Tolle's A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose account of our life being one of expansion and contraction. It is within the contraction that we are given the gift, and personal loss and tragedy are often the catalyst:


The return movement in a person's life, the weakening or dissolution of form, whether through old age, illness, disability, loss, or some kind of personal tragedy, carries great potential for spiritual awakening — the dis-identification of consciousness from form. Since there is very little spiritual truth in our contemporary culture, not many people recognize this as an opportunity, and so when it happens to them or to someone close to them, they think there is something dreadfully wrong, something that should not be happening.

There is in our civilization a great deal of ignorance about the human condition, and the more spiritually ignorant you are, the more you suffer. For many people, particularly in the West, death is no more than an abstract concept, and so they have no idea what happens to the human form when it approaches dissolution. Most decrepit and old people are shut away in nursing homes. Dead bodies, which in some older cultures are on open display for all to see, are hidden away. Try to see a dead body, and you will find that it is virtually illegal, except if the deceased is a close family member. In funeral homes, they even apply makeup to the face. You are only allowed to see a sanitized version of death.

Since death is only an abstract concept to them, most people are totally unprepared for the dissolution of form that awaits them. When it approaches, there is shock, incomprehension, despair, and great fear. Nothing makes sense anymore, because all the meaning and purpose that life had for them was associated with accumulating, succeeding, building, protecting, and sense gratification. It was associated with the outward movement and identification with form, that is to say, ego. Most people cannot conceive of any meaning when their life, their world, is being demolished. And yet, potentially, there is even deeper meaning here than in the outward movement.

It is precisely through the onset of old age, through loss or personal tragedy, that the spiritual dimension would traditionally come into people's lives. This is to say, their inner purpose would emerge only as their outer purpose collapsed and the shell of the ego would begin to crack open...

The disruption of the outward movement at a time when it is "not meant to be happening" can also potentially bring forth an early spiritual awakening in a person. Ultimately, nothing happens that is not meant to happen, which is to say, nothing happens that is not part of the greater whole and its purpose. Thus, destruction or disruption of outer purpose can lead to finding your inner purpose and subsequently the arising of a deeper outer purpose that is aligned with the inner...

What is lost on the level of form is gained on the level of essence. In the traditional figure of the "blind seer" or the "wounded healer" of ancient cultures and legend, some great loss or disability on the level of form has become an opening into spirit. When you have had a direct experience of the unstable nature of all forms, you will likely never overvalue form again and thus lose yourself by blindly pursuing it or attaching yourself to it. [emphasis mine]

The opportunity that the dissolution of form, and in particular, old age, represents is only just beginning to be recognized in our contemporary culture. In the majority of people, that opportunity is still tragically missed, because the ego identifies with the return movement just as it identified with the outward movement. This results in a hardening of the egoic shell, a contraction rather than an opening. The diminished ego then spends the rest of its days whining or complaining, trapped in fear or anger, self pity, guilt, blame, or other negative mental-emotional states or avoidance strategies, such as attachment to memories and thinking and talking about the past.

If you read that last paragraph and thought, "Hey! I resemble that comment!" know that there is a way out. The vast majority of our suffering is caused by our cravings and clingings to the trappings of this world. Now that our spouse is dead, our memories of our past married life constitute a substantial part of those trappings. As we let go of those memories, we find that our suffering eases and we can find more contentment within the present moment. Being at peace is only possible in the present; we cannot be at peace when we hold fast to the shards of the past.

May you find peace.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Outgoing and The Return

In the last chapter of Eckhart Tolle's A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose, he explains several things that directly pertain to us as widow/ers. Within the first year or two after the death of our spouse, it can be very, very difficult to conceive of our mate's death as a great gift to us. But, as Eckhart illustrates, the gift is there nonetheless.

Our life consists of two main phases — the outgoing phase, where we are growing and expanding, and the return phase, where we are diminishing and shrinking [pages 282-283]:


Those two movements, the outgoing and the return, are also reflected in each person's life cycles. Out of nowhere, so to speak, "you" suddenly appear in this world. Birth is followed by expansion. There is not only physical growth, but also growth of knowledge, activities, possessions, experiences. Your sphere of influence expands and life becomes increasingly complex. This is a time when you are mainly concerned with finding or pursuing your outer purpose. Usually there is also a corresponding growth of the ego, which is identification with all the above things, and so your form identity becomes more and more defined. This is also the time when outer purpose — growth — tends to become usurped by the ego, which unlike nature does not know when to stop in its pursuit of expansion and has a voracious appetite for more.

And then, just when you thought you made it or that you belong here, the return movement begins. Perhaps people close to you begin to die, people who were a part of your world. Then your physical form weakens; your sphere of influence shrinks. Instead of becoming more, you now become less, and the ego reacts to this with increasing anxiety or depression. Your world is beginning to contract, and you may find you are not in control anymore. Instead of acting upon life, life now acts upon you by slowly reducing your world. The consciousness that identified with form is now experiencing the sunset, the dissolution of form. And then one day, you too disappear. Your armchair is still there. But instead of you sitting in it, there is just an empty space. You went back to where you came from just a few years ago.

The day we came home from the hospital knowing that Deb's cancer had returned and that this would be a fight to the death was the day I could feel our life contracting. I watched, helpless, as Deb became less and less. All this at a time when, as a new mom to our 1 and a half year old son, she should have been fulfilling her potential. She absolutely saw motherhood as her outward purpose. And I had thought my outward purpose was as a husband and a father. Instead, It turned out that my outward purpose was as a caregiver. Until one day the couch was still there, but instead of Deb sitting on it, there was just an empty space.

In my next post, I'll share Eckhart's wisdom of the gift that awaits us during The Return, if we will just be aware of it and seize the opportunity.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

See The Perfection

In my last post, I left you with the following quote:

See the perfection where the seeming imperfection seems to be
-- Lester Levenson

It comes from a very special book called Happiness Is Free, and when I first read it about 3 weeks after Deb died, I wanted to reach through the book and choke Lester by the throat! I mean, come on! My wife is dead. And you're talking about "seeming imperfection?" I'll "seeming imperfection" you one! Too bad — I was too late. Lester died in 1994.

And no, I'm not still bitter about that quote. In fact, I now completely agree with him. After much hard grief work and a lot of personal growth, I have come to understand what he was talking about. I give a bit more context for the quote in one of my earlier posts entitled Perspectives. The quoted passage starts off with the following line: "Look within yourself and see if you are willing to live in a world without problems."

But when we become bereaved, our whole life is turned upside down. We don't feel the same, all our plans for the future are put in doubt and/or destroyed, and we often struggle to mentally survive moment to moment. That first year especially, it is a major accomplishment just to get out of bed and go to work and back! Everything is a struggle. Everything is a problem. And grief hurts like hell — another problem to overcome. And our best friend / lover / companion / fellow parent / confidant / supporter is dead and never coming back, and that's a problem with no solution! So what's this nonsense about looking within to see if I am willing to live in a world without problems? Where do these guys get off writing this junk?

I'm almost finished reading Eckhart Tolle's book, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose. He explains that sometimes when people suffer a profound loss, they experience an emerging new dimension of consciousness. Whatever they had identified with has been taken away. Then, inexplicably, the initial anguish or intense fear gives way to a deep peace and serenity.

In my case, this did not happen right away. In fact, I had a lot of grief work to do before, at month 21, I attended a free 10 day silent meditation course, and then I began to experience what Eckhart talks about. I realized my true identity as consciousness itself, rather than what my consciousness had identified with. And I had really identified myself with Deb, both before and after she died. But here I was on day 9 of my meditation course, realizing that there exists this guy named Vic who has no problems whatsoever. That guy is truly who I am! I am not my problems. I am not my story.

Of course, there's a strong possibility that you're reading this and thinking, "there's no way I'm going to meditate for 10 minutes, let alone 10 days!" Or maybe, "My story is very important to me. It is a big part of who I am, who I have become." Or even more likely, "I can never be truly happy ever again, now that my spouse is dead. If giving up my problems and my story is the price I have to pay for serenity, and I will also lose my identity in the process, then that is too great a price to pay. I will not diminish the memory of my dead spouse so that I can be happy."

Except that that is not what happens. Identifying with our pain, our story, our memories, and our problems sets us up for even deeper misery, as Eckhart explains [pages 57-58 of A New Earth]:

Not everybody who experiences great loss also experiences this awakening, this disidentification from form. Some immediately create a strong mental image or thought form in which they see themselves as a victim, whether it be of circumstances, other people, an unjust fate, or God. This thought form and the emotions it creates, such as anger, resentment, self-pity, and so on, they strongly identify with, and it immediately takes the place of all the other identifications that have collapsed through the loss. In other words, the ego quickly finds a new form. The fact that this new form is a deeply unhappy one doesn't concern the ego too much, as long as it has an identity, good or bad. In fact, this new ego will be more contracted, more rigid and impenetrable than the old one.

Whenever tragic loss occurs, you either resist or you yield. Some people become bitter or deeply resentful; others become compassionate, wise, and loving. Yielding means inner acceptance of what is. You are open to life. Resistance is an inner contraction, a hardening of the shell of the ego. You are closed. Whatever action you take in a state of inner resistance (which we could also call negativity) will create more outer resistance, and the universe will not be on your side; life will not be helpful. If the shutters are closed, the sunlight cannot come in. When you yield internally, when you surrender, a new dimension of consciousness opens up. If action is possible or necessary, your action will be in alignment with the whole and supported by creative intelligence, the unconditioned consciousness which in a state of inner openness you become one with. Circumstances and people then become helpful, cooperative. Coincidences happen. If no action is possible, you rest in the peace and inner stillness that come with surrender. You rest in God.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Never Mind

I have a little index card (folded at the bottom so it stands up) on my office desk with the following written on it:

Everything Is In Flow
I am letting go of all resistance to life

It has sat there in my peripheral vision for over two years. I didn't realize what a profound effect it was having until one of my co-workers recently said to me, "man, you are so Zen." I just smiled, mostly because I don't know a thing about Zen ;-)

But I did understand what he meant. It takes a lot to ruffle my feathers these days. Of course, now that my spouse is dead, my bar for life challenges has been raised substantially, so the little things (what we affectionately called chickenshit in the army ;-) don't really bother me anymore. But I'm finding more and more that the big things don't really bother me anymore either.

Perhaps you're familiar with the story of the farmer who experienced a variety of experiences that most of his neighbors were quick to label "good" or "bad:"

There is an ancient Chinese story of a farmer who owned an old horse that till his fields. One day, the horse escaped into the hills and when the farmer's neighbors sympathized with the old man over his bad luck, the farmer replied, “Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows?”

A week later, the horse returned with a herd of horses from the hills and this time the neighbors congratulated the farmer on his good luck. His reply was, “Good luck? Bad luck? Who knows?”

Then, when the farmer's son was attempting to tame one of the wild horses, he fell off its back and broke his leg. Everyone thought this very bad luck. Not the farmer, whose only reaction was, “Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows?”

Some weeks later, the army marched into the village and conscripted every able-bodied youth they found there. When they saw the farmer's son with his broken leg, they let him off. Once again, the farmer's only reaction was, “Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows?”

There are no misfortunes in life. There are only missed fortunes… missed only because we fail to recognise and appreciate them as they truly are… fortunes, experiences, learning opportunities, seeds of wisdom…

From our limited vantage point, it is often fruitless to attempt to figure out why something happened and unhelpful to label it as good or bad. I often find myself saying, "it is what it is." In bereavement, of course, we need to confront this issue head-on. Almost anyone would say that having your spouse die is bad, terrible, a catastrophe. Is that so? Death is what it is. Nobody gets out of this life alive.

I'm not asking you to logically accept this, right now or ever. I am suggesting that you not think about it. If there are some things in life that we are not destined to understand, why waste time thinking about them?

Ah, you say, but what about the pain? The agony of grief hurts beyond imagination and lasts far longer that what we think we can tolerate. Surely that is bad?

Is that so?

The pain we experience in bereavement is what it is. And that is the key — we need to experience it, fully and completely. Not run away from it, avoid it, bargain with it, or anesthetize it. We need to feel it, experience it, welcome it. A great question we can ask ourselves which comes from The Sedona Method:

Can you just allow whatever you are experiencing right now to be here?

There's a scene near the beginning of Lawrence of Arabia where Peter O'Toole lights a match and watches it burn down to his fingertips. When his co-worker tries it, he flings the match away and exclaims, "it bloody hurts!" To which the young Lawrence replies, "The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts." And despite having watched that film over ten times, I've never understood that quote until today ;-)

When we begin to accept that grief hurts, when we welcome the pain, we can fully experience bereavement, and we can begin to heal. And instead of asking ourselves why this terrible thing has happened to us, we can ponder this instead:

See the perfection where the seeming imperfection seems to be
-- Lester Levenson

And yes, that snapped me out the first time I read it too ;-)

Monday, July 21, 2008

Adapting To Being Alone

Soon after our spouse dies and the funeral is over and the family has gone back home, we find ourselves facing the awful reality of being alone. Awful not only because we don't want to be alone, but also because we aren't ready to be alone. We still think like we're married, and we have hundreds of habits that are appropriate to our past life as a husband or wife. Throughout those early days and for months after, reality is constantly scraping against these thoughts and habits, harshly reminding us that we are alone.

A good example: you get out of the house for the day and come home to a dark, empty house. As the silence envelops you, you think again that this is now how it is — you are alone. And that isn't going to be changing anytime soon.

Understandably, this can often cause a great deal of anxiety and fear. As I've posted about previously, we can respond to anxiety actively by facing our fears, or we can respond passively by avoiding them. It is quite common for widow/ers to avoid fears early on by plunging into work, physical activities and exercise, or projects. Anything to avoid confronting this reality of being alone. But if you're still avoiding being alone as you approach the one year mark, it's maybe time to ask yourself why.

Chandra Alexander has posted a great article about this avoidance of being alone, and I think it speaks directly to those of us who have lost our mates:

Avoiding Being Alone

Are you afraid to spend time alone and will you do anything to avoid it? If you are constantly avoiding alone time, here are some things to think about that just might help in setting you free.

1. Is doing “anything” better than being alone?

  • If doing anything feels better than being alone, you need to deal with this issue, because doing “anything” is not better than being alone.

  • When we run from something (being alone), the focus remains on the running and not what we are doing.

2. Do you feel anxious when faced with the prospect of being alone?

  • The feeling of anxiety lets us know that the feelings we are running from are beginning to rise to the surface; that’s what happens when we spend time alone.

  • You will always feel anxious when you enter unknown territory. You are used to being distracted. When you are alone, many of those familiar distractions are removed; as a result, you will initially feel anxious.

3. You must face your fears or you will always be running.

  • Running becomes very tedious, very tiring. The only way you will ever be able to stop running, is to turn around and invite the demons in.

  • When you face your fears and refuse to run, the chase stops!

4. Spending time alone is the ONLY way to really know your SELF.

  • It is only in the quiet moments that we are able to KNOW the depths of who we really are.

  • Can you not answer your cell, turn the TV off, and sit quietly?

  • Can you bear the anxiety that comes from not being distracted? If you can, you will be rewarded with an expanded sense of Self.

5. Enjoying your own company is the reward.

  • To be able to have a solid sense of Self - whether you are with people or alone - is what you want to happen.

  • There is NOTHING better than enjoying your own company!!!

In my case, after working hard on getting used to being alone, at 20 months I decided to be really alone. I felt I was mostly ready to confront myself fully and completely, so with much trepidation I attended a free 10 day silent meditation course. It turned out to be the major key to my healing. I highly recommend it.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Body’s Power to Heal Itself

I read an interesting article a month or so ago called The Key to Natural Healing. One thing jumped out at me:

The Body’s Power to Heal Itself

Q: I find it hard to understand how pain points to the ultimate?

A: […] Another way to express this is to let the body be body. The body has an organic memory of health. You have the proof of this in the fact that when you cut your finger, it heals within a week. The body evidently knows precisely how to heal itself...

Understanding that the body has a built in blue print of perfect health and it will do all it can to heal itself, I feel, is a very reassuring fact. The human body has enormous intelligence which it has accumulated over centuries, it know exactly what to do and how to do it. Your job is mostly to listen to it, and assist it with it’s inbuilt healing capabilities.

When I read that, I was reminded that when our body heals a cut finger, it heals it just to the right amount and no more. There's an amazing process at work there, one that's not under our control. Yes, there are things we can do to help it along, like swab it with rubbing alcohol to kill the germs, but the healing is done for us. And when our finger is healed, we don't have to mentally address the body and tell it,"OK, good job, you can stop now." The body knows how to heal itself.

A similar process is at work when our spouse dies. The body knows how to grieve. And it will heal our grief to just the right amount and no more. This should offer us a great deal of hope. Pretty much every one of us has suffered a small cut somewhere on our bodies. And our body healed itself. You probably don't even remember the particulars about some of those cuts anymore, especially if they happened some years ago. Isn't it comforting to know that your body is busily at work healing itself from this grief wound as well? You know that your body can heal cuts, and you have the proof that the healing process works. This insight should help to alleviate some of our fears. Grief doesn't last forever.

Isn't it interesting that we feel pain when we are bereaved? We have no cut on our body, but it hurts like we've been attacked by a meat cleaver. I remember feeling like someone had buried a big hatchet in the middle of my chest and was busy wiggling it around. It hurt like hell.

Grief was devastating to me. Was it devastating to my body? No. Grief was devastating to my mind, and my mind caused the pain in my body. I needed to learn how to heal my mind. And when I learned how to heal my mind, the physical pain went away.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Being Human

Do not search for the truth;
only cease to cherish opinions.

— Chien-chih Seng-ts'an, Third Zen Patriarch [606AD]

I'm half-way through Eckhart Tolle's A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose, and I've been mulling over the above quote since I read it late this afternoon. For many years, the pursuit of truth has long been a passion of mine, but since I attended a free 10-day silent meditation course this past January, I have not been so interested in "the truth." I have, however, been interested in noticing my opinions and being aware of my limited perception of the world, so I smiled when I read the zen proverb today.

Ekhart has a number of interesting things to say in his book, several of which I think directly apply to widow/ers. I'll touch on one of them briefly tonight, and it will help to clarify my position on a philosophical point.

I like the way Ekhart explains that our task is to find the balance between human and being. Humans have form while beings are formless. So many people get caught up in the world of forms that they miss the spiritual side, the formless side. Yet forms are important: we need to eat, sleep, stay warm, and participate in various other activities in the material world. The world of forms cannot be ignored or marginalized. But it is not the only world.

The formless world of our being is the world beyond our thoughts, feelings, and emotions. It is in that world that we are. We are not our thoughts, we are not our feelings, we are not our emotions. There is a part of us beyond these three things, the part that observes the thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Cultivating awareness of our thoughts, feelings, and emotions will help us get in touch with who we are. Why would we want to do this? In my case, on day nine of my Vipassana meditation course, I discovered the Vic who has no problems. Problems are limited to the world of forms. Wouldn't you like to be free of your problems?

Because our spouse is dead, it is easy to get caught up in our story. "My life is ruined" is a story. "My spouse is dead" is a fact. But how can we state the fact without getting caught up in the story? The story is a collection of thoughts, feelings, and emotions. But we are not our stories. And our stories do not serve us well. They hold us back, keeping us caught up in the human part of our being. We need to let our stories go.

But don't get me wrong here — a major part of our grief work is expressing our story, getting it out there. We need to get the thoughts, feelings, and emotions of our bereavement out. That's why I am a big advocate of grief support groups, especially those run by people who have already suffered a loss themselves. Attending these meetings and sharing your story is a safe and appropriate way to grieve, one that won't alienate you from your friends and family.

But expressing our story is different from identifying with it. If you are still saying your life is ruined after a couple of years, you probably want to start examining why you have taken on this persona. What does it do for you? Does it replace a previous persona, the one you had when you were married, the story of the loving wife or husband, caregiver, lover, friend, companion? Has that story been replaced by this new story? Are you willing to entertain the idea that there is a you who has no story? Needs no story?

It would be easy for me to get caught up in my story. My wife died so young. We had so much left to do. Her slow death by cancer was agonizing to witness, and there was so little I could do to alleviate her pain or comfort her spirit. I was left alone to raise our 2 year old son. His life will never be the same, growing up in the world with no mommy. You get the idea.

But what would this story get me? What would it accomplish? Maybe I could get some sympathy, the first time it is told to someone new. Probably not the second time, and good luck finding that new person to tell them a third time ;-) Or, I could use it as an excuse for not accomplishing more in my life. He loved her so much, and now he is struggling to simply survive. Look how devastated he is. How brave he is, facing life alone as a single dad. Or some other such claptrap.

Do I still tell my story? Yes, at the grief support group, as a way to show newly bereaved widow/ers that life does go on. Here's how I tell my story now:

Hi, my name is Vic, and my wife Deb died of cervical cancer two years ago at age 32. We were married for 12 and a half years, and I have a five year old son.

That story is not who I am. Those are some facts that are associated with me, with my past. Part of my healing from grief was telling a much more elaborate, personal version of that story, and then letting that story go.

Why am I sharing this with you now? Well, after my last post about biochemical processes, I didn't want to leave you with the impression that I am a behaviorist. I do not believe that we are simply a walking bucket of sloshing chemicals, bumbling about and reacting to our environment, and that bereavement is simply a matter of a scarcity of endorphins and dopamine. No, no, no ;-) But neither is bereavement a purely spiritual matter of losing one's soulmate, the loss of that spiritual being that understood us like no one else. Both aspects are important, both have their place. Finding the balance between the two is key to grief recovery.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Chemical Dependencies

I'm always fascinated to learn about the powerful chemicals sloshing around our cranium. One neurotransmitter in particular, dopamine, plays several critical roles in grief and grief recovery.

The inspiration for this post came from reading The Science of Setting Goals by Dustin Wax. It reminded me of another article I read a few years ago about how America is High on Dopamine.

I've written before about ways to release endorphins, that natural form of opiate produced by our bodies. But it is important to understand the role dopamine plays in grief, in contrast to endorphins. I'll quote some pertinent info from the second article first:

Dopamine is a pleasure-inducing brain chemical, a neurotransmitter that controls action. Dopamine is associated with addiction of all types. Recent studies have indicated that dopamine responds more to unpredictable rewards than to predictable ones. A part of the brain called the striatum where dopamine exists seems to care more about what it cannot predict. In a sense, dopamine produces a need for novelty.

Dopamine has been associated with the novelty of drinking, gambling and other addictions, but it is also connected with curiosity, adventure, entrepreneurship and accomplishments.

How does this relate to bereaved widow/ers? When our spouse was alive, we became addicted to them chemically. Just being around them released endorphins, which contributed greatly to our sense of well-being. Now that our spouse is dead, we no longer get the endorphin hit and suffer withdrawal.

Dopamine played a role in our wanting to be around our spouse. When we love someone, we do things for them. Think back to a time when you did something for your late spouse. Maybe it was something simple like picking up some flowers they liked on the way home from work. That act of love involved dopamine. Here's some info from the first article:

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

This explains a great deal of how our body responds when we lose our mate:

One of the greatest of desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

For me, anyway, it was helpful to know that those horrible feelings I experienced during my acute grieving were partially chemically-induced. What I wished I had learned earlier was why I found planning for the future to be so traumatic. As I came to learn, future planning is a major grief trigger. Here's one reason why:

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

So now I understand why I felt so terrible when I was still recently bereaved and trying to plan my life without Deb. I was already suffering the loss of dopamine-induced pleasure I used to receive from 14 years of being around her. And then, when I set a goal for my future as a single father, my mind further starved me of dopamine because I hadn't yet attained it! A double-whammy.

All this to say, take it easy on yourself when you are grieving. And when you feel like crap because you can't get up the gumption to do something simple like get some groceries, now you can blame it on the drugs ;-)

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Unsatisfying Grief

"You need to fully experience grief." How many times have you read that? It makes you wonder if the authors have ever experienced a loss themselves. In the acuteness of loss, the pain can be overwhelming, and this at a time when we are doing our level best to minimize our suffering. Why would anyone want to experience agonizing pain to the fullest extent?

And yet, this is a necessary part of successful grieving. Despite how it may feel, grief is *not* all-powerful and all-encompassing. It does have boundaries and limits, and discovering these limits helps to put grief in perspective. It helps take the fear away. Fear of what? Going crazy, for one!

Of course, the day you decide to probe the depths of grief should not be one where you are already under a lot of stress. Not that the exercise will overwhelm you (in fact, just the opposite), but the mind will need a fair bit of support to even contemplate the prospect of going to the center of the pain.

Remember the first time you dove into a pool? I do. Well actually, I remember all the days I tried to dive and failed to gather the gumption ;-) I was scared. Scared of hurting myself, scared of losing control, scared of letting go. Looking back, the agony of anticipation was way worse than the actual dive itself. But it was one of those things that, until the deed was actually done, only the fear seemed real.

I got the following exercise from Happiness Is Free, and in a future post I'll quote the process in its entirety. For tonight, however, a quick synopsis will more than suffice.

First, take a number of steps to support yourself and reduce your stress. You can reread Feeling, Not Thinking II for some good ideas here. Next, get comfortable. When I did this exercise, I was sitting on my couch in my cozy, dimly-lit living room. Then, begin to go over some of the more troubling aspects of your spouse's death. You know, those thoughts that tend to really cut you up. The only difference is that this time you will try to push those wounding thoughts harder. As you're feeling and experiencing pain, ask yourself if you could go deeper into that pain. And deeper. Ask yourself if you could find the bottom of that pain, to go to the core of that pain. Give yourself permission to feel the full extent of the pain. The center of it. See if you can describe what the pain feels like at its most potent, most concentrated core.

The funny thing is that trying to intensify mental pain is a frustrating endeavor. No matter how you try to lock that pain down to isolate its core, you will find that the core eludes you. Or rather, the mind-blowing pain that you expect to find there doesn't exist. What you find there instead is a weird kind of peace.

Have you ever sat down and gorged yourself on your favorite snack food? Perhaps you didn't set out to gorge yourself. But that first bowl of ice cream just didn't do it for you. So you had another. And another. And a bit more. And just one more spoonful. And, well, there's just a little bit left, so there's no point in putting that back in the freezer. And now you just ate an entire box of ice cream!

Do you feel satisfied at the end of such a binge? Or did the pleasure escape you? Are you left with an empty ice cream container and an unsatisfied feeling (despite your full tummy)?

Probing grief can be the same way. Only it won't be pleasure eluding you, it will be pain. The crazy pain will elude you. You won't be able to find that place where the pain breaks you down. You will instead experience a similar unsatisfied feeling to that which you experienced when you snack-binged. But instead of a full tummy, you'll now find you've got grief in a bit of a box. That agonizing pain will no longer be a mysterious, awesome, scary force like an angry ocean. For now you've discovered just how shallow the pain of grief really is. And that knowledge can help you get through each day much easier than before.

The dread will have lost its sting.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Time To Say Goodbye

If at first you don't succeed, you're running about average.

-- M. H. Alderson

How is it that some widow/ers seem to move on fairly quickly after their spouse dies, and others are still deep in grief after several years? I have been asking myself this question for the last few days. I consider myself to be in the first group, but I know people who are in the second group.

I suspect that a big part of my healing was saying goodbye to Deb. No, I don't mean while she was alive. She said goodbye to me 16 months before she died, but I could never bring myself to say goodbye to her until she was dead. The last thing I did before leaving the hospital was kiss her lifeless forehead and say "goodbye."

But that's not what I'm talking about tonight. It took me a number of months to understand that our relationship continued after she was already dead. We are creatures of habit, and I had 14 years worth of habits that involved Deb. Simple things, like what groceries to buy. Complicated things, like deep-seated differences in our personalities. Mentally, I was still involving her in my life months after she was dead.

To me, letting go of your dead spouse means no longer involving them in your life. I needed help in accomplishing this, and I relied heavily on the excellent book The Grief Recovery Handbook. I describe how this book helped me in an early post titled Grief Work.

The main focus of that book is writing and then reading a goodbye letter to your dead spouse. A definitive letter. You are going to say goodbye, and it means goodbye. No longer will he or she be part of your active living. You will not defer to them again, solicit their opinion again, rely on them again. Goodbye means goodbye.

Is this hard to do? Absolutely! It cut me in half to read that final letter out loud. But it was necessary. It put a floor under my grief, a line in the sand. Here, and no further.

But the mind is a creature of habit. And we are addicted to the endorphins our brain generates when we engage our spouse in our day to day life. Over time, these habits have become ruts — familiar grooves through which our thoughts run. We need to break out of those thought patterns if we ever want to heal.

Changing habits, especially mental habits, can be very difficult. And it's not like we have ideal conditions to start from either. Most likely, we're mired in anguish and pain. But change those patterns we must. It is hard, and we will fail. Often. But we need to continue until the thought patterns have changed and we no longer include our dead spouse in our day to day lives.

I'm reminded of the poem "Autobiography In Five Short Chapters" by Portia Nelson:


I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk
I fall in.
I am lost ... I am helpless.
It isn't my fault.
It takes me forever to find a way out.


I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don't see it.
I fall in again.
I can't believe I am in the same place
but, it isn't my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.


I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in ... it's a habit.
my eyes are open
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.


I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.


I walk down another street.

Walking down another street begins with saying goodbye. As you watch this video, ask yourself if now is the time for you to say goodbye as well.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Grieving a Sudden Death

In my last post, I shared some Eastern wisdom from Sogyal Rinpoche's great book, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. I really enjoyed reading it, if for no other reason than that it gave me an entirely new perspective on death. I find that Western grief books almost always tell you that grief is forever, that you will always be grieving to some degree. In the Eastern tradition, however, the approach to grief is noticeably different — we can learn to let go of our dead spouse and go on with living.

Tonight's post will be about grieving a sudden death. While Deb's death was far from sudden, I have now met a good number of widow/ers whose spouse did die suddenly. Sogyal shares some important grieving advice which will hopefully help you to heal more quickly:

[from pages 312-313]:

Facing loss alone in our society is very different. And all the usual feelings of grief are magnified intensely in the case of a sudden death, or a suicide. It reinforces the sense that the bereaved is powerless in any way to help their loved one who is gone. It is very important for survivors of sudden death to go and see the body, otherwise it can be difficult to realize that death has actually happened. If possible, people should sit quietly by the body, to say what they need to, express their love, and start to say goodbye.

If this is not possible, bring out a photo of the person who has just died and begin the process of saying goodbye, completing the relationship, and letting go. Encourage those who have suffered the sudden death of a loved one to do this, and it will help them to accept the new, searing reality of death. Tell them too of these ways I've been describing of helping a dead person, simple ways they too can use, instead of sitting hopelessly going over again and again the moment of death in silent frustration and self-recrimination.

In the case of a sudden death, the survivors may often experience wild and unfamiliar feelings of anger at what they see as the cause of the death. Help them express that anger, because if it is held inside, sooner or later it will plunge them into a chronic depression. Help them to let go of the anger and uncover the depths of pain that hide behind it. Then they can begin the painful but ultimately healing task of letting go.

It happens often too that someone is left after the death of a loved one feeling intense guilt, obsessively reviewing mistakes in the past relationship, or torturing themselves about what they might have done to prevent the death. Help them to talk about their feelings of guilt, however irrational and crazy they may seem. Slowly these feelings will diminish, and they will come to forgive themselves and go on with their lives.

I'll finish up tonight's post with another quick excerpt from the book, this time dealing with the perspective of grief as a gift. All too often we experience grief as some terrible emotion that we just want to get rid of at all costs. Perhaps the following perspective can help you change this desire to run away from grief. I healed a tremendous amount when I wanted to find out what lay on the other side of grief:

[from page 316]:

You may even come to feel mysteriously grateful toward your suffering, because it gives you such an opportunity of working through it and transforming it. Without it you would never have been able to discover that hidden in the nature and depths of suffering is a treasure of bliss. The times when you are suffering can be those when you are most open, and where you are extremely vulnerable can be where your greatest strength really lies.

Say to yourself then: "I am not going to run away from this suffering. I want to use it in the best and richest way I can, so that I can become more compassionate and more helpful to others." Suffering, after all, can teach us about compassion. If you suffer you will know how it is when others suffer. And if you are in a position to help others, it is through your suffering that you will find the understanding and compassion to do so.

So whatever you do, don't shut off your pain; accept your pain and remain vulnerable. However desperate you become, accept your pain as it is, because it is in fact trying to hand you a priceless gift: the chance of discovering, through spiritual practice, what lies behind sorrow. "Grief," Rumi wrote, "can be the garden of compassion." If you keep your heart open through everything, your pain can become your greatest ally in your life's search for love and wisdom.

And don't we know, only too well, that protection from pain doesn't work, and that when we try to defend ourselves from suffering, we only suffer more and don't learn what we can from the experience? As Rilke wrote, the protected heart that is "never exposed to loss, innocent and secure, cannot know tenderness; only the won-back heart can ever be satisfied: free, through all it has given up, to rejoice in its mastery."

In my grief work, I wanted to learn what grief had to show me, and I only wanted to learn it once! Over time, I was able to look at grief as a friend and companion; an experience to be embraced, not a torment to be endured.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Grief Experienced Dissolves

Tonight's post will be a little different in that it is geared both towards the bereaved and people who wish to help the bereaved. One of the most popular articles on this blog is How To Help A New Widow Or Widower, so I'd like to expand on that article a bit with some help from The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. I find that Sogyal Rinpoche has some very compassionate things to say to widows and widowers, and I feel it is important to share bereavement tips from an Eastern tradition. So, without further ado:

[from pages 311-312]:

A person who is going through bereavement for the first time may simply be shattered by the array of disturbing feelings, of intense sadness, anger, denial, withdrawal, and guilt that they suddenly find are playing havoc inside them. Helping those who have just gone through the loss of someone close to them will call for all your patience and sensitivity. You will need to spend time with them and to let them talk, to listen silently without judgment as they recall their most private memories, or go over again and again the details of the death. Above all, you will need simply to be there with them as they experience what is probably the fiercest sadness and pain of their entire lives. Make sure you make yourself available to them at all times, even when they don't seem to need it. Carol, a widow, was interviewed for a video series on death one year after her husband had died. "When you look back on the last year," she was asked, "who would you say had helped you the most?" She said: "The people who kept calling and coming by, even though I said 'no.'"

People who are grieving go through a kind of death. Just like a person who is actually dying, they need to know that the disturbing emotions they are feeling are natural. They need to know too that the process of mourning is a long and often tortuous one, where grief returns again and again in cycles. Their shock and numbness and disbelief will fade, and will be replaced by a deep and at times desperate awareness of the immensity of their loss, which itself will settle eventually into a state of recovery and balance. Tell them that this is a pattern that will repeat itself over and over again, month after month, and that all their unbearable feelings and fears, of being unable to function as a human being any more, are normal. Tell them that although it may take one year or two, their grief will definitely reach an end and be transformed into acceptance.

As Judy Tatelbaum says:

Grief is a wound that needs attention in order to heal. To work through and complete grief means to face our feelings openly and honestly, to express and release our feelings fully and to tolerate and accept our feelings for however long it takes for the wound to heal. We fear that once acknowledged grief will bowl us over. The truth is that grief experienced does dissolve. Grief unexpressed is grief that lasts indefinitely.

But so often, tragically, friends and family of the bereaved person expect them to be "back to normal" after a few months. This only intensifies their bewilderment and isolation as their grief continues, and sometimes even deepens.

In my next post, I'll share some of Sogyal's advice for people who have experienced sudden death.

I'll just reiterate how important it is to find a local bereavement support group and attend regularly. Such a group is probably your best bet for finding people who will listen "silently without judgment" as you go over your memories and details of the death.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Rules For Managing Grief

I've mentioned before that I think Dr LaGrand writes excellent articles on grief and grieving. His most recent article is no exception. I personally have used every single rule, and I can vouch for how much of a difference they have made in my life. As you read them, make a conscious decision to start applying just one of the rules in your life today. That old adage about time healing all wounds only works when you actively do something with that time. Here's what to do:

7 Rules For Managing Grief and Loss

Grief and loss are inherent parts of life. No one gets off scott free from facing the emotional and physical pain of accepting the death of a loved one. Yet, all too frequently, we maximize our pain out of a lack of insight into the reality of major change and the common problems of adapting to life without the beloved.

Here are seven rules that will help in the challenge to deal with the inevitable changes to be faced and re-orienting to a new and different life.

1. Never allow thoughts to turn into actions without your full consent. Negative thoughts pervade most loss experiences. We tend to look back at what we lose and ahead to all the real and imaginary obstacles that have to be faced. This occurs in an atmosphere of fear and confusion which maximizes our concerns. Then a universal law takes effect: what we focus on expands. In this case, fear grows and the obstacles appear insurmountable. There is nothing wrong with being scared in facing the new and here is how you can deal with it.

Full consent always implies deliberation. Deliberation means reasoned dialogue and thinking. Frequently, get with those you trust to share all concerns and ask for feedback on your thoughts. Let the fear, guilt, or loneliness out. Not easy to do, but the results will be essential in making the right choices and defusing limiting beliefs and fears. Doing the right thing will take courage that you can muster with help from friends. Use them with humility.

2. Be open to new ideas, assumptions, and beliefs. Loss challenges our beliefs about life and death. Grief is a time when reevaluating the way we were taught that life is, usually has to be challenged. There is more to its mystery than our little version. For most, there is a lot to learn, especially in how to accept impermanence.

Big, life-changing events often cause us to examine our values and put things in perspective. Revising beliefs will also bring new meaning to loss and an easier reinvestment in life. In reality, loss is a great teacher of the importance of relationships, humility, and gratitude.

3. Allow failure to be viewed as a normal part of coping well. Accepting failure as a tool for learning always spawns success. Having been utilized for centuries, it is just as true for coping with loss as it has been with some of the greatest inventions.

Be aware that we are programmed early in life to expect immediate success or to feel we are not up to the task. Examining where we make mistakes, and taking action to rectify them, is the road to follow. See failure when grieving as a friend, as part of your education about loss and life.

4. Start reconnecting as soon as possible. Loss and the emotions that accompany it are strong forces of isolation. Isolation especially hinders your ability to adapt and accept the new conditions of existence. Everyone needs a variety of connections; they are surefire lifelines. Do this: strengthen connections to your faith, friends, work, and mission because it is critical to reinvesting in life and developing new routines.

New routines are an absolute must due to the absence of our loved one. Make these new routines into new habits, which is an important key to coping well.

5. Cultivate solitude on a regular basis. Take time out each day just for yourself. This is just as important as building your circle of interpersonal relationships. It is a positive state time leading to comfort, enhanced spirituality, and creative coping with your great loss.

Find a place where you enjoy being alone, a particular room in your home, an area in a park, at the beach, or some other natural setting. Give yourself permission to take a cry break or listen to soothing music. Take a walk by yourself. Meditate. Meditation will reduce your stress and raise your energy level. Give yourself a pep talk. Do what is best for you.

6. Trust your inner knowing. This resource is seldom consciously used. So listen to what your intuition and your body tell you about the choices to be made and the direction to travel. You have wisdom within, if you will take the time to be honest with yourself and listen. Then make yourself take that first difficult step in tackling whatever problem you have to face that day.

When discouraging thoughts start to build take action to stop the downward spiral by asking yourself "What do I need to do right now?" Listen to what comes up from your intuitive treasure, trust it, and reverse your direction. Keep repeating this new action.

7. Make the "D" word the cornerstone of your new life. Determination is a commitment you can make. Talk to yourself and say that you are going to prevail in this difficult adaptation. Write specific inspiring phrases on a 3 by 5 card that you can whip out and read when you start feeling the blues.

Then combine your self-coaching with getting up and moving into another room or going outside when things seem unmanageable. Consider calling a best friend or develop a method (create any affirmation) to interrupt the pattern of thoughts causing discouragement. With conscious determination you can redirect emotion.

All of the above can be worked on, one rule at a time. Remember what was said earlier: what you focus on expands. This not only holds true for fear and negative thoughts. It is just as powerful for visualizing yourself meeting and successfully negotiating a particular problem. It holds true for focusing on a positive memory or a gratitude memory. Those positive events will expand in importance and assist your transition.

Dr. LaGrand is a grief counselor and the author of eight books, the most recent, the popular Love Lives On: Learning from the Extraordinary Encounters of the Bereaved. He is known world-wide for his research on the Extraordinary Experiences of the bereaved (after-death communication phenomena) and is one of the founders of Hospice of the St. Lawrence Valley, Inc. His free monthly ezine website is http://www.extraordinarygriefexperiences.com

I'll just mention that I read a quote recently, attributed to Gene Simmons of Kiss fame. He talks about being "ruthless" with your thoughts. In reference to the first rule, I found I needed to make a conscious decision to no longer entertain certain thoughts about Deb and my past role as her husband. It has made, and continues to make, a big difference in my life. I hope it does in yours also.